Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense

What kind of offense should you (or do you) run? A typical responses sounds something like: “I run a system with bubble screens, play action passes, screens, and draws.” This is a nonsensical answer. That’s not an offense; it’s a collection of plays. An offense consists of what are your base runs, base dropback passes, base options, or whatever else are your base, core plays. The other plays I mentioned are not your offense, they are constraints on the defense, or “constraint plays.”

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

In a given game your offense might look like it is all “constraint” plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so, if that’s what the defense deserves. But you can’t lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and other gimmicks are your best offense for a couple of weeks doesn’t mean that it will be there. Indeed, the best defense against that kind of stuff is simply a sound one. Thus great offenses must be structure around sound, time tested core ideas, but have the flexibility to go to the “constraint plays” whenever the opportunity exists. Too often, the constraint plays are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go.

If you’re a dropback pass team — think of the Airraid guys — you need constraint plays that counteract defenses that cheat for the passes. If you’re a great run team, you need constraints that attack safeties and linebackers who all cheat by formation and post-snap effort to stop your run game. You must have the counters, the screens, the bootlegs, and the quick passes, which work best when the defense gives you the structure. All this comports well with a game theory approach to football. Indeed, these constraint plays are most important against the best teams because those teams put the biggest premium on taking away what you hang your hat on. (But be wary of constraint plays against very talented teams — they may be stuffing your core offense not because they are cheating, but instead because they are better than you; the constraint plays then play into their hands.)

The upshot is that a good offense must: (a) find those one or two things on which it will hang its hat on to beat any “honest” defense — think of core pass plays, options, and so on, but also (b) get good at all those little “constraint” plays which keep the defense playing honest. You won’t win any championships simply throwing the bubble screen, but the bubble will help keep you from losing games when the defense wants to crush your run game. Same goes for draws and screens if you’re a passing team. You find ways to do what you want and put your players in position to win and score.

Designing an offense is all about structure. Constraint plays, like the bubble, work when the defense gives you the play by their structure; same for play-action passes over the top. When I say these are defensive cheats, I mean they aren’t the base, whiteboard defenses you expect, because defenses — both players and coaches — adjust to take away what you do well. But you want to go to your core stuff, so you build your offense off of that, and each constraint play forces the defense back in line, right where you want them. That’s the beauty of football: punch, counterpunch.